Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Is Your Life Good?

As I've detailed elsewhere, I'm currently thinking about the relationship of home, labor, and nature -- namely, the degree to which we might resist their being only commodities of trade. Our communities and bodies, expendable for the sake of productivity; the environment in which these communities and bodies live, breath, love, hate, resist, and dissent, reduced to the limits of our perception and expectation, an object to protect or rape, sometimes both at once, but never to acknowledge with the dignity fitting of an active subject in its own right

I am under no illusion that I'm blazing a new trail of insight and research. I'm comforted by this. I've tilted alone at too many windmills in the past, and am comforted that Im not alone this time. I am, for example, very happy there are people like Bill McKibben out there writing books like Deep Economy and articles like this one in Mother Jones.

If we're so rich, how come we're so damn miserable?

In some sense, you could say that the years since World War II in America have been a loosely controlled experiment designed to answer this very question. The environmentalist Alan Durning found that in 1991 the average American family owned twice as many cars as it did in 1950, drove 2.5 times as far, used 21 times as much plastic, and traveled 25 times farther by air. Gross national product per capita tripled during that period. Our houses are bigger than ever and stuffed to the rafters with belongings (which is why the storage-locker industry has doubled in size in the past decade). We have all sorts of other new delights and powers—we can send email from our cars, watch 200 channels, consume food from every corner of the world. Some people have taken much more than their share, but on average, all of us in the West are living lives materially more abundant than most people a generation ago.

What's odd is, none of it appears to have made us happier. Throughout the postwar years, even as the gnp curve has steadily climbed, the "life satisfaction" index has stayed exactly the same. Since 1972, the National Opinion Research Center has surveyed Americans on the question: "Taking all things together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" (This must be a somewhat unsettling interview.) The "very happy" number peaked at 38 percent in the 1974 poll, amid oil shock and economic malaise; it now hovers right around 33 percent.

And it's not that we're simply recalibrating our sense of what happiness means—we are actively experiencing life as grimmer. In the winter of 2006 the National Opinion Research Center published data about "negative life events" comparing 1991 and 2004, two data points bracketing an economic boom. "The anticipation would have been that problems would have been down," the study's author said. Instead it showed a rise in problems—for instance, the percentage who reported breaking up with a steady partner almost doubled. As one reporter summarized the findings, "There's more misery in people's lives today."

[. . .]

If happiness was our goal, then the unbelievable amount of effort and resources expended in its pursuit since 1950 has been largely a waste. One study of life satisfaction and mental health by Emory University professor Corey Keyes found just 17 percent of Americans "flourishing," in mental health terms, and 26 percent either "languishing" or out-and-out depressed.

McKibben goes on to detail the research that has concluded that the breaking point of money buying happiness in any given culture is an income of $10,000 per capita.

"As poor countries like India, Mexico, the Philippines, Brazil, and South Korea have experienced economic growth, there is some evidence that their average happiness has risen," the economist Layard reports. Past $10,000 (per capita, mind you—that is, the average for each man, woman, and child), there's a complete scattering: When the Irish were making two-thirds as much as Americans they were reporting higher levels of satisfaction, as were the Swedes, the Danes, the Dutch. Mexicans score higher than the Japanese; the French are about as satisfied with their lives as the Venezuelans. In fact, once basic needs are met, the "satisfaction" data scrambles in mindlnding ways. A sampling of Forbes magazine's "richest Americans" have identical happiness scores with Pennsylvania Amish, and are only a whisker above Swedes taken as a whole, not to mention the Masai. The "life satisfaction" of pavement dwellers—homeless people—in Calcutta is among the lowest recorded, but it almost doubles when they move into a slum, at which point they are basically as satisfied with their lives as a sample of college students drawn from 47 nations. And so on.

Think about this the next time you're working overtime in order to pay for that new IPhone you stood in line for an hour to get so somebody, anybody, would notice you with it; or those badass Diesel jeans you saw somebody wearing, and that made them look so happy and alive, so attractive of life.

Who is manning the suicide hotline for an entire culture with a pistol in its mouth?